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HAAS helps FELCO reduce part costs

HAAS helps FELCO reduce part costs

Added to MTDCNC by HAAS Automation on 23 January 2013

Located in the village of Les Geneveys-sur-Coffrane, around 5km from Neuchâtel in the French-speaking west region of Switzerland, FELCO SA is a company with a history dating back to the end of World War II, when Félix Flisch, a trained fitter and turner, set himself what was at the time a very ambitious goal: to create the best pruning shears and sell them in Switzerland, Europe and beyond.
Mr Flisch fabricated the first pair of FELCO secateurs in the garage of his home, alongside which the current factory still sits, today. The reliability inherent in their simple design, almost unchanged 70years later, caught the attention of winemakers at the region’s many local vineyards; with revenue from early sales, he set-up his nascent business.

The company’s early products were designed to offer comfort and ergonomics, inter-changeability of parts and durability – attributes which have since become common features of all FELCO products. Owners of FELCO secateurs made in the 1950s and 60s can still buy replacement blades and other components, in the unlikely event that they should fail.

With the exception of screws and springs, all of the company’s secateurs components are manufactured at its Swiss plant - the two blades being, of course, the critical parts. Traditionally these are produced by stamping, a process practiced by almost all companies in the garden tools industry – until now. With the aid of the latest Haas DT-1 drill-tap-machining centres, integrated with robot loading and transfer, FELCO has differentiated itself by transitioning to CNC machined blades.

“With our previous method we required several stamping machines to produce the blades,” explains the company’s Manufacturing Manager, Mr Sébastien Nussbaum. “The initial idea was to switch to an automated machining cell to mill and bore, instead of stamp. This is when we started to look for a suitable CNC machining centre.”

The company installed its first Haas, an EC500 CNC horizontal machining centre, in July 2011. A VM-2 vertical machining centre followed soon after, and thanks to their performance and reliability, Haas machines also climbed swiftly up the list of potential investments for the company’s latest project: the automated blade machining cell, where Mr Nussbaum says he wanted machines that could, amongst other things, change tools quickly. The Haas DT-1 has a high-speed, side-mount, 20-pocket tool changer, where chip-to-chip times are just 1.8 seconds. “Together with a generous working area, powerful direct drive spindle and high rapids and accelerations, the Haas DT-1 machines offered me an exceptional price-specification ratio,” he says. “They provide the foundation for a manufacturing solution that has changed the way we make our products.”

FELCO’s two Haas DT-1s combine to form a single cell using Fanuc LR Mate 200iC vision-enabled robots, set-up to orientate, load and transfer parts between the machines. The company splits the operations on the DT-1s – one for each side of the steel blades, which are handed either left or right by the robots. Operations to tolerances of 0.03mm include profiling, bore production, feature milling and blade point milling. Cycle times average out at around 40 seconds and annual blade volumes top 700,000!

“Today, only FELCO is milling blades, and by doing so we get much higher quality compared to the stamped alternatives offered by our competitors,” says Mr Nussbaum. “Not only is milling a lot faster as a complete process, there is no grinding required to finish the blades.”

The new Haas cell runs seven days a week, 24 hours a day. FELCO has factory operatives in the plant between 05:00 to 22:00, who “keep an eye on things”, but during the hours 22:00 to 05:00 the cell works unmanned, lights-out – a period Mr Nussbaum refers to as the “ghost shift”.

From its earliest days FELCO has sought to bring in-house every process required to manufacture its product range. This approach has allowed the company to systematically integrate technological advances into each stage of production and to enhance them with know-how acquired over 60 years. Today, FELCO is widely acknowledged as the leading brand in its field, and has six subsidiaries distributing its products in more than 120 countries.

Cutting and pruning are seasonal, of course, by their very nature. In general there is no pruning in summer, so FELCO’s production continues for stock purposes only, with sales typically recommencing in the autumn, dropping off later in the year and recommencing in spring. In total, 90% of the one million secateurs produced at the FELCO factory every year are exported: 15-20% to the United States, with Europe the next big market.

FELCO has a history of developing solutions in-house, even building its own machines in the past. “We did our homework before selecting the DT1 machines,” recalls Mr Nussbaum. “They were supplied by Haas Automation and the robots were supplied by Robotec. We preferred not to ask for a finished solution; instead, we wanted to assemble the cell and create our own process from scratch, simply because we have always done so and we have the in-house expertise.

Reflecting on how things are done differently compared to when he joined the company, Mr Nussbaum also summarises the challenges of keeping a well-established, Europe-based manufacturing firm at the forefront of its market, given the competition it faces from companies located in lower-cost regions of the world.

“There were 15 people working in component manufacturing when I started in 2005,” he says, “whereas today there are only five. We’ve pushed to use CNC wherever possible, to keep costs down and quality high. As well as replacing our 15-year-old stamping cell, the Haas DT-1 cell has allowed us to remove a number of old, FELCO-built machines and other conventional mills, which were not suitable or reliable enough for high-volume manufacturing.

“It was also important that we improved the perception of FELCO as a manufacturer, bringing it into the 21st century. But, it wasn’t easy. Without affordable technology like the Haas machine tool cell, it wouldn’t be possible. Salaries 30-40 years ago were quite low in Switzerland, and critically there was little competition. But, today you need CNC and you need automation if you want to maintain quality at high-volume and you want your products to remain affordable. It’s as simple as that!”

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